At a time when dissemination of fake news on social media platforms and the role of these portals in influencing electoral process is being debated in India as well the US, Chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai said that it was not upon the government to sit in judgement of who could speak and who could not. Speaking to PRANAV MUKUL on the sidelines of the India Mobile Congress, Pai said that one of the challenges a regulator faces is to find a level playing field between all technologies — new and old — and not disadvantage them based on antiquated regulations. Excerpts:
Is there a need for expanding the ambit of a telecom regulator, which traditionally had oversight on networks, to include the evolving tech?
From the US perspective, it is increasingly apparent that convergence has made a lot of our regulatory structure antiquated. The Communications Act which the FCC administers was first developed in 1934 and subsequently amended in 1992 and 1996. That Act still contemplates that wireless service is separate from regular telephone services, which is completely separate from cable service, which is separate from satellite service. When it comes to broadband, all four industries are vigourously competing. So one of the challenges is to figure out how we find a level-playing field that promotes investment and innovations for all these firms without disadvantaging any one of them. The second issue is that these are very dynamic industries and one can foresee in coming decades – things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, quantum computing will have significant impact on how communications networks operate. We don’t have jurisdiction over these firms but that’s one of the thing we are trying to learn about. What are the emerging technologies that will have an effect on this space and how should our thinking about regulation evolve. No time ever has been more challenging than the 21st century.
What are your views on paid prioritisation of web traffic?
I’ve consistently said that one can envision both pro-competitive and anti-competitive prioritisation arrangements. For example, if you have a telemedicine firm and you need to prioritise delivery of traffic that is critical to robotic surgery or transmission of information about an emergency – we might want prioritisation arrangement that is pro-competitive. On the other hand, one can envision anti-competitive arrangements where the firm is essentially using prioritisation for inappropriate competitive advantage. It is impossible to say in the abstract that every single of these prioritisation arrangements is anti-competitive and therefore you are going to ban all of them for all time. Our view is that it is better to regulate by doing a case by case analysis.
What is the answer to fake news and how does one strike a balance between free public discourse and false news?
As one of the justices of our Supreme Court once said, the best solution to speech that you don’t like is more speech. It is incumbent upon to people to counter views that they find false or repugnant to enter the public square and counteract those. It is not upon the government to say what news should be published.
A conversation is needed. For example, what kind of algorithms are they using to determine what content is seen and what content is not seen when somebody does a Google search, how Facebook feed is defined, when Twitter decides what accounts to suspend – what are the rules behind that. The need for transparency that will allow consumers to make better decisions is something that will serve everybody well.
What do you think should be the role of governments in ensuring data security?
This is one of the issues that the US Congress is evaluating right now, where there is a robust conversation about what types of privacy and data security protections should be embedded in the law. I would expect our elected officials over the next several months to continue that conversation. There seems to be a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats, and agreement in both houses of Congress that this is an issue that requires legislative attention. From an administration perspective, this is more of an issue for the Federal Trade Commission, which has the jurisdiction over privacy and data security issues. This is the topic of hot interest in our legislature.